I used to love clothes shopping. I loved the endless possibilities for a new image. I loved hunting for bargains — a skirt for £5 that looked better than ones sold for £30, maybe. I loved the little thrill of getting something new. And there was always the tantalising hope that this new outfit would make people think I was more cool/attractive/interesting.
A few years ago, this changed. When walking through a large shopping centre I found myself torn emotionally. Part of me was still drawn to the styles and colours under the bright lights, but part of me was slightly nauseated. I didn’t know why. Over the years this distaste for shops grew. Clothes shops seemed worst but I found all shops selling new things made me uneasy.
One day a few months ago, looking down at a supermarket from the mezzanine floor cafe, I realised why.
The shops were lying to me.
It’s a lie that the cost is only what the price label says.
Behind the seemingly endless rows of shiny, brightly coloured packaging, my heart glimpsed what retailers don’t want customers to see: the people in factories and tea plantations and rice paddies, the polluted rivers, the burning coal.
The boxes are stacked so tightly on the shelves that usually we can’t see the people who produced their contents. The clothes are so clean and look so abundant that it seems inconceivable that they could have been sewn by someone who was only allowed one toilet break in a 14 hour shift and earned pennies for a day’s work.
Shops make getting new stuff look as easy as lifting it off the shelf. But much of what we buy is cheap only because someone else is bearing the true cost.
Every few years some clothing brand or other gets bad publicity for something: sweatshops, workers killed in a fire, or violation of trade union rights. There’s talk in the media of a boycott; then it’s forgotten.
But the brands hit by front-page scandals are just the ones unlucky enough to get caught by a newsworthy scandal. According to the UK charity Labour Behind the Label, systemic human rights abuses pervade the global garment industry. Workers on poverty wages regularly work 14-16 hour shifts in cramped conditions, with few breaks, inadequate toilets, and harassment from bosses. Fatal accidents are common.
Air pollution in Chinese cities causes cardiovascular disease, cancer and asthma. It’s so bad that life expectancy in the north of China (where the worst pollution is) is 5.5 years lower than in the south. One-fifth to one-third of that pollution is due to manufacturing goods for export.
When I buy a Chinese-made toy in a shop in the UK, nothing from what I pay for it goes toward the cost of inhalers for children whose asthma was caused by pollution from the coal plant which supplied electricity to the factory where my toy was made. None of the price of my new leather shoes compensates the people living near the Indian tannery for cancer caused by chromium pollution.
As Labour Behind the Label puts it, “No-one should live in poverty for the price of a cheap t-shirt.”
Clothes have their benefits. They can express your personality, help you fit in with a group, or help you stand out. They can even keep you warm. But they can’t win you love. They won’t instill lasting respect in others. And the thrill of the new doesn’t last long.
I don’t want people to live in poverty, get sick or die just so that I can buy new clothes more often. Much less do I want people to suffer for my mistaken belief that fashionable clothes are a shortcut to a new me.
Here’s a few things I’ve tried to do:
- Think about the things’ history when I am deciding what to buy. Who grew or produced them? Did they get fair wages? Just being aware of the people behind the products is a good start.
- Look out for ethical certification labels. Where there’s a choice of products, even if it costs more (which it usually does), I buy Fairtrade and organic. Fairtrade products guarantee a minimum price goes to the producers and a premium to their community.
- Subscribe to Ethical Consumer to find out which retailers and manufacturers are best and worst. They research companies and products and produce score tables for how ethical a brand or product is. The website has quite a bit of information you can see even if you don’t subscribe.
- Ask questions of the mainstream brands. Campaigners say companies notice comments on social media particularly.
- Buy secondhand. It requires a bit of charity shop trawling but I almost never need to buy brand new clothes for my family. There are also lots of selling websites and Facebook groups for buying all sorts of things secondhand. And through Freecycle and similar social media groups you can get many things for free.
Sometimes it all seems too hard. The global problems look as big as the globe and the well of my compassion seems to dry up quickly in the heat of daily life. Sometimes it seems impossible to meet the competing demands of bank balance, health, family, and ecology, even before I begin to consider the people in countries I’ve never been to who sewed my jeans and picked the beans for my coffee.
But they are people. They are made in the image of God. They are my neighbours. I will keep trying to see through consumerism’s lies.